Technology Goes Postal And The Innocent Suffer

“You Are The Only One." The cynical phrase used by the Post Office to ensnare innocent victims. The Post Office scandal in the UK (including Northern Ireland) dating from 1999 to the present is hard to fathom on many levels.

The Post Office pursued and persecuted thousands of sub-postmasters and postmistresses across the UK because their branch accounts differed from the Post Office (Horizon Fujitsu) IT system. This led to bankruptcy, homelessness, incarceration, criminal records, emotional and physical sequalae, social stigmatization and suicide.

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Innocent staff, with previously unblemished records, were suddenly "stealing" thousands of pounds based on the ‘"robust" Horizon IT system. Post Office investigators never found a scintilla of evidence of theft such as spending on luxury goods and holidays that are often found in cases of embezzlement.

The investigators, paid bonuses for confessions/convictions (a recipe for disaster), used shady and coercive tactics. If the post office employees said "I think there is something wrong with the IT system" they were browbeaten, shouted down and told "You are the only person who ever had a problem with the (IT) system," which they knew was false.

It caused the accused conscientious employees to doubt themselves and under severe pressure went along with false self-incrimination. The narrative that the IT system was as secure as "Fort Knox" was, and is, a fallacy.

No IT system is penetration-proof or error proof. Including Fort Knox. Anyone working in IT knows this. Any civilian knows this. Software glitches are pervasive, ranging from minor mishaps like Bank of Ireland ATMs giving out "free money" during August 2023 to catastrophic outcomes like the two Boeing 373 MAX plane crashes in 2019/2020.

Fujitsu failed to highlight this and could have prevented many of the prosecution even after a whistleblower for the vendor Fujitsu declared the system was a shambles from day one.

Senior Post Office management cynically and egregiously pursued convictions after they learned the IT system was not fit for purpose. No one from the Post Office or Fujitsu have been brought to justice to date.

The legal world, with a few honorable exceptions, came out tarnished from the scandal. Prosecution lawyers suppressed evidence that would have benefited the accused, contrary to law and natural justice. Most lawyers for the accused advised taking guilty pleas to lesser charges to avoid guaranteed jail time for theft charges.

There was no evidence of theft. Their lawyers were derelict in not pursuing vigorous defenses. In Northern Ireland, 30 employees were impacted by the scandal. They shared the same fate as those in the rest of the UK: prosecutions, imprisonment, bankruptcy, loss of livelihood, ill health and community ostracization.

Deirdre Connolly, from Strabane, told the public inquiry that one investigator accused her of siphoning the missing money to paramilitaries - a potential death sentence if the allegation reached the wider community. This behavior by an agent of the Post Office (and the Crown) was thuggish and reckless.

The moving testimony to the Post Office Inquiry from eight of the 30 Northern Ireland victims viz. Deirdre, Alan McLaughlin (Belfast), Fiona Elliott (Strabane), Maureen McKelvey (Omagh), John Gormley (Derry), Heather Earley (Newtownabbey), Sinead Rainey (Moneyglass) and Katherine McAlerney (Castlewellan) can be found in the public record.

Kudos are due to Computer Weekly and Private Eye magazine who were early campaigners in highlighting the scandal when the mainstream media ignored it. Nick Wallis, a talented, dogged and campaigning free-lance journalist, did the most to unravel and document the scandal and still continues to cover new shocking revelations.

His book, "The Great Post Office Scandal," reads like a thriller and is a great primer on the scandal from first to last. Although over 500 sub-postmasters and postmistresses, led by the falsely accused former sub-postmaster (and a hero in this long running saga) Alan Bates, won a court case against the PO in 2019 and a public inquiry followed in 2020, it was the airing in January 2024 of the ITV drama Mr. Bates vs The Post Office that galvanized the public, mainstream media and parliament to bring more pressure to bear.

This four-part series began on PBS April 9, 2024. Phase 5 of The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry restarts on April 11, 2024 (through September) and is aired live and makes compelling, although disturbing viewing.

Although the PO Scandal has been called the worst miscarriage of justice in UK legal history, Irish people don’t forget the wrongful convictions of The Guildford Four (1975), The Birmingham Six (1975) and The Maguire Seven (1976).

These were more perverse in terms of sentencing and police corruption but scale-wise (800 convicted but almost 3000 charged) the PO scandal is astounding.

Common sense would tell you that an IRA bomb making factory in a suburban kitchen by a middle-aged mother and her children was preposterous. Likewise, 800 loyal PO employees would not suddenly and en masse evolve into thieves. It does not compute. Just like the Post Office Horizon IT system.

Séamus Scanlon is the Librarian,  Division of Interdisciplinary  Studies, The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education, (CCNY CWE), providing BA and BS degrees for adults since 1981.